Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The 1915 Centennial: Assyrians and the early massacres

April 24 is widely considered to be the starting point to the genocidal campaign against Ottoman Armenians. In fact that date marks the mass arrests of Armenian leaders in Istanbul, with the order for mass deportations of Armenians formally passed on May 29. But significant violence targeting Armenians - as well as another Ottoman Christian minority, the Assyrians - preceded both of these dates. The Ottoman entry into World War I after its initiation of hostilities with the Russians in late October 1914 became the real starting point of the violence that soon obtained genocidal proportions.

The New York Times, March 27, 1915
As Raymond Kevorkian details in his 2011 book "The Armenian Genocide: a complete history," attacks on Armenians even preceded the Sarikamish debacle of the Ottoman army in December 1914 - January 1915.  The first Ottoman attacks across the Russian frontier since late November 1914 towards Ardanish and Olti, located northwest and west of Kars, involved massacres of Armenian villages. In December 1914, there were massacres of Armenians in Baskale and Saray-Mahmudiye districts, southeast of Van and near the border of then Russian-occupied Iran. Victims of these two sets of massacres are estimated to be in many thousands.

The large-scale Ottoman attack towards Sarikamish led to the hasty evacuation of Russian forces from much of northeastern Iran in early January 1915. As Russians left Urmia, Salmas and Tabriz, tens of thousands of local Christians, including Armenians and Assyrians left with them. In the period between January and May 1915, when Russian forces reoccupied these areas, thousands of Armenians and Assyrians were reported killed in Urmia and Salmas, mostly by Kurdish and other Muslim militias acting on behalf of the Ottoman forces who occupied the area.

The Christian refugees from Iran fled to the Russian Caucasus, settling primarily in present-day Armenia. In the 1920s, a group of Assyrians established the village of Urmia in the North Caucasus that today is part of Russia's Krasnodar Kray and is the only Assyrian village in Russia. Assyrian refugees from Iran established several more villages in Armenia and at least one in Georgia.

In all, more than 275,000 Assyrians are believed to have been killed by the Ottomans both in Iran and inside Turkey, as the nation of some 600,000 was subjected to a genocidal program similar to that perpetrated against Armenians.

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